Pema and I were out the door, on our way to the kitchen, when I stopped in the sun room to stir the rose hips. It was a passing thought and I had only meant to take a second to turn them, but when that floral, earthy scent hit my nose I swooned. “Pema!” I shouted, “Come smell these!”
“What, Dada?” Pema asked, sticking her head in from the mud room.
“The rose hips.”
She watched for a second as I knelt over the metal baking pan, running my hands through the maroon-orange berries. They were littered with shards of green, red and yellow leaves. “Smell ‘em, pup,” I said, moving back so she could get close. She took a deep breath through her nose, then turned to me and exhaled. “Mmm,” she said, “smells like fruit.”
“Dada, when can we stop and rest?” We were climbing through a dense forest of ponderosa and oak. The trail was pretty steep, and Pema and Silke, trailing behind, were beginning to flag. “Soon, pup,” I answered, without slackening my pace. “There’s a sweet spot just ahead. Let’s stop and rest, and maybe have a snack, but I think we’re going to appreciate getting just a little further up the canyon, into the aspens. There’s a spring there.”
“Okay,” Pema sighed, plodding up the hill.
My feet kept the rhythm, and we soon came to a clearing. Half a mile further lay a large expanse of wild roses, which, for reasons I don’t fully understand, have large and abundant rose hips. The woods rose, or mountain rose, grows all over this range, and along the rivers and acequias in the valley - anywhere there’s enough water - but nowhere have I found rose hips like this. Out of the way, indistinct and rarely traveled, this little spot on the side of the mountain – rose hip heaven – was our goal.
“Have you been up this way before?” I asked Silke.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head.
On top of the clearing, we could see the rose-covered foothills in the distance, the golden grass dotted with colorful pink, orange and red shrubs. Autumn. Immediately before us, where the earth leveled off before plunging into a thicket of aspens, lay two columns of dense, brick-red oaks. This would be our path. Relatively flat, it is a natural place for water to gather, and the kinds of plants that reign it in. There are bluebirds here, and phoebes, along with squirrels and rats, deer and elk. Once, guided by an elder, I located a bear cave only a few minutes scramble up the side of the drainage. Another time, quite alone, I found a complete bobcat skeleton.
“Hey Dad, look,” Pema said.
“What is it?” I asked, turning around.
I looked at the orange-red scat, the unmistakable sign of a rose hip feast. “No, I think that’s a coyote,” I said. “But you’re right, it looks like a bear. A bear would be bigger though,” and I opened my hands wide, “like a big plop. This looks more like dog poop, which makes me think it’s a coyote.”
“It’s rose hips, though,” Pema said, underscoring her main point. Having lived most of her life in these forests, this sunset-colored plop is to her the distinguishing sign of bears. “You’re right,” I answered, turning round to the front.
We continued walking. From our vantage point, it was clear that the aspens had mostly spent their glory. The vast pool of thin gray trunks was perfectly bare, save for a few out of the way spots still shimmering a glossy yellow. This whole mountain had been densely forested years ago, alternating between fir and pine on the convex surfaces, aspen on the concave. But a large wildfire took out most of the trees twenty years ago and the landscape is still obviously scarred. That, in part, is why the roses are so abundant.
The conifers, which reproduce by seed, are slowly retaking the hillsides, but the aspens, whose roots form a dense community under the earth, immediately propagated from the parent roots, returning with a vigor that far surpassed that of the conifers. Sadly, their bright yellow display was nearly over, and even the abundant leaves on the forest floor, which crunched pleasantly underfoot, were mostly brown.
“Wow, Dad, what’s that?” Pema asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered, following her line of sight to a huge tuft of golden leaves in the middle of the drainage cleft. Reaching fifteen feet or more into the air, it resembled a giant fountain of light, but it wasn’t an aspen.
“Is it a willow?” asked Silke, gently implying that, duh, it was a willow.
“Let’s stop here, Dad,” Pema insisted.
“Absolutely,” I said, happy to have found such a spot. Pema began making a beeline for the willow, but we were alongside an embankment covered in roses and other thorny bushes, so her progress was slow. “Hold on, pup,” I said, impressed by her zeal. “I think we can find an easier way up here.” Twenty feet ahead, an old aspen, a victim of the fire, had fallen lengthwise across the embankment, giving us a raccoon’s passage to the golden realm.
Skittering down the tree trunk, Pema jumped off into a pool of multicolored leaves – raspberry, oak, rose, willow and aspen. Only minutes ago, we had been in a rather plain section of old-growth ponderosas, all of which had escaped the fire. Beauty comes in all forms, but the reality of a dense cluster of ponderosas is that little else grows there. The path had been mostly dirt and needles: forest green, orangish-brown, and coffee colored dirt. Now, less than a few hundred yards away, we were in an herbaceous heaven filled with golds and silky greens, populated with deep crimson berries and the sound of trickling water.
“Geeze Louise, pup,” I said, “I think we won.”
“Won what, Dada?” Pema asked, climbing onto an old stump shaped like a chair.
“I don’t know… life, I guess.”
“I see a princess throne…” Silke sang in her lilting voice.
“You mean this?” Pema asked, giggling.
“Yes, and here is the princess’s golden crown. And look,” Silke said, pointing to a mossy realm behind the throne, “a fairy house!”
Hey ho good friend! Just a quick thing: Nicole would like a bunch of rose hips, and I thought you might know someone who would like to be paid a few hours to lovingly harvest some, then ship them here. I think the season is upon us. Does that sound possible? Love you! Jared
I squinted at the computer screen in the dimly lit room. I had been up for a couple hours, but Pema still lay asleep behind me. Normally, I wouldn’t check my email this early in the morning, but after bringing breakfast in from the kitchen, stirring and banging around a bit to see if Pema would awake, I decided to hop on the computer for a minute. Gently, I tapped out the following response.
Surely. Tell me how much you want. Here's one thing to consider - they need to be dried. They'd probably be fine sealed in a package and shipped if you immediately took them out upon arrival and set them to dry. But if they sit in a bag or container for long, like any fresh fruit, they will rot. Once you tell me how much you want, I will decide if it's something I can manage on my own. Otherwise, it's likely I could find someone who would do it for money. Love you! Looking forward to our trip. My phone is dead. :) Joe
Jared’s answer came later that day.
Hmmm....sounds like it might be better to dry them first. Hate to have them rotten by the time they get here. In terms of quantity, we were thinking 2-3 lbs or 3 hours of picking, whichever comes first. I have no idea how many that is, but we're looking for a lot. If that's not a lot, then more. If that's an insane amount, then less.
Right. Four days later, I finally responded.
Sorry. Swamped. I will feel into the rose hips. There's really no rush. There's so many here we could pick them through winter. Even the bears can't eat them all. Not that I mean to delay. Point is, I will probably try to do it myself. 2-3 lbs is not a lot. Might be around a gallon? If you want way more than that, then maybe I'd try to find someone. More soon. love you, Joe
Later that day, he wrote back.
That sounds good. A gallon is about right, although we'd take 2-3 gallons.
“What do you think, pup?” I asked. Pema and I were scouting out rose bushes down by the Rio Hondo. About a mile from home, the roses were especially abundant here along the river bank. Earlier this spring, we had walked past these fragrant bushes at least a few dozen times. Unlike the cultivated varieties, which are usually bred for showiness and, for whatever reason, consequently have little fragrance, the wild roses, with their simple five-petal blossoms, pack a spectacular wallop. During peak bloom, about two weeks in late May and early June, whole canyons can be filled with their amorous scent. Come fall, after the first frost, the rosy red hips are at their peak sweetness.
“This looks good,” Pema answered, ambivalently. She had already dropped a few into her little screw-top container. Translucent and hexagonal, she had picked it out for just this purpose. I had a two-gallon bucket in my hands, but I could already tell that was unnecessary. The hips, juicy, red and abundant, were, as I had suspected, rather small, like blueberries. Still, I plunked a few against the bottom of the pail. I knew we’d only get away with a quart or so, but we might as well enjoy it. “Can I eat one, Dada?” Pema asked, a rose hip already in her mouth. “Of course,” I answered, “eat as many as you like.”
A few months earlier, on Father’s Day, in keeping with tradition, Pema and I had collected rose petals on a different mountainside, where the blooms are abundant, but the hips are wanting. We made rose water that evening, a fun gift to share, but sadly I didn’t add enough alcohol and it all rotted a week later, smelling of olives.
It’s only in writing this that it occurs to me how much information I have inadvertently stored about rose patches in my consciousness. There’s something about this plant, whose tender leaves and delicate blooms draw me in come spring, then deliver a heavenly aroma. For much of my life, I thought that was the big bang of roses, but it wasn’t till I lived in the mountains of New Mexico that I realized how much food these incredible plants produce. As Pema’s commentary on bear poop indicates, one of this animal’s principal foods in the fall is roses. During this time, their squat, round poops can be found all over the mountain, and while they are occasionally black and brown, from acorn shells and other high-calorie foods, the mauve-orange scat of rose hips is the predominant and distinctive sign of bears this time of year, at least in these mountains. Coyotes eat them. Birds eat them. Rabbits, raccoons, rats and squirrels eat them. People eat them – in jams and jellies, teas and tinctures – but just as often plain. There’s just something about a rose hip, tangy, mildly sweet and globular. I dropped a few more in my bucket.
“Dad, look how many I have,” Pema said, jiggling her container at me.
“Yeah, pretty great,” I said, smiling. I often enjoin these kinds of tasks with a certain lust for a goal (a gallon is about right, although we'd take 2-3), but once I settle into the cadence of picking wild fruit, it’s easy to relax and lean into the moment. The hips, red and plump, released from the stem with a seductive little slip, and the leaves, papery thin and dry, filled the branches with pinks and dusty golds. Thorns scratched at my hands, a welcome irritation. This shouldn’t be too easy, after all. Ten feet away, the Rio Hondo burbled, laughing gaily as it slipped down the canyon.
“Daddy!” Pema squealed from the middle of a rose thicket, knocking me from my reverie, “I’m stuck!” Glancing at Pema, I saw that she was so fully ensnarled with thorns that she had no direction in which to retreat. “Geeze Louise, pup,” I said, laughing modestly, “hold on.” Setting down my bucket, I reached for the largest branches, which were wrapped around Pema’s clothing like octopus tentacles. Red, gold and orange leaves tumbled around us. Not finding an easy way to extract her, I laughed, then grew serious. “I don’t know, pup,” I said, “You might have to live here from now on. I can bring you food later tonight. Mama will probably help.”
“No. Come on, Dad,” Pema answered, with a knowing smile. She reached her hands up to me. This child, such an unfailing embrace.
“Alright, come here,” I said, putting my hands under her shoulders. I lifted her as straight up as I could, but some of the snarls continued snarling, evincing a few pained expressions from Pema, but nothing alarming. Walking towards the river, I held my daughter close to my chest, then set her down in a clearing. I pulled off the last of the dangling thorns. “You know, you can play by the river if you want,” I said. “I don’t expect you to pick rose hips the whole time.”
“No, I’m good,” Pema answered, squirming out of my hands. She began rummaging through the bag we had brought, which lay by the shore.
“You hungry?” I asked.
She pulled out the warm pants and sweater I had brought for her, holding them up proudly.
“Are you putting on blockers?” I asked.
“No…” she answered, tucking her head demurely and laughing. “Well, yes.”
“Okay, this is roughly the spot,” I said, indicating the hillside to Silke and Pema. “It goes on quite a way, so we can poke around here, but we can keep moving forward too.” Having left the aspens behind, and the enchanting golden willow, we now stood on a small rise populated with crisscrossed tree trunks and standing snags. The ashy-white trunks were interspersed with clumps of yellow-green grasses and a sea of roses, whose leaves had turned a deep pink-red, gold and orange. The sunlight was filmy and translucent, as it often is high on the mountain, making it appear as if the fourth dimension of space, time, had suddenly become visible. Tiny insects zig-zagged through the firmament.
“The bushes,” I continued, “aren’t big, but for whatever reason the hips here are two to three times the size they are elsewhere. Plus, being small, the bushes are easy to pick. Anyway, do what you see fit.” With that, I began walking up the hill, away from the path. Pema, holding the same hexagonal container she had carried down by the Rio Hondo, followed Silke, who, like me, had a large white bucket in her hands. Soon, the three of us were scattered amongst the hillside.
I plucked a few here and there, listening to the hollow sound as the hips hit the bottom of my bucket. They were certainly larger, as I had recalled, but they were already quite dry, so that each one clung to the branches with more tenacity, making the whole affair a bit thornier. After yanking and pulling on a few bushes, I stood up and looked over at Silke and Pema, some distance away. I had led them here on the belief that this would be easy. The whole hill was covered in red, rosy leaves, which, though beautiful, made locating the hips, which were the same color, a bit ungainly. But even beyond this, it appeared that the hips simply weren’t as abundant as I had recalled. Maybe the bears had picked them over. Maybe the spring bloom hadn’t been quite as spectacular. Maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Are there more this way?” Silke shouted, standing up to look at me, curling her arm around to point backwards. “Yeah!” I shouted, “All over! Maybe worth spreading out! Let me know if you find any good patches. I’m going to check down below.” Once again, I glanced at my two-gallon bucket with something approaching disappointment.
Oh well, I shrugged, and stumbled down the hill.
“Dada, look,” Pema said, pointing to the flashy gold leaves of the quaking aspens. Having plunked around for half an hour, I had managed to find enough rose hips to justify the hike, but it wasn’t like I had hoped. Once, years ago, I had lumbered up here alone with two five-gallon buckets. That had been ambitious, but within a matter of a couple hours I had picked enough rose hips to make three gallons of rose hip butter, jarring that thick, creamy sauce in mason jars that, afterward, oozed with that familiar tangy-red fragrance.
“Yeah,” I answered, stopping to take stock of what might be the last pocket of golden aspens I’d see that year. “I bet Silke’s in there,” I said. Having initially bounced back and forth between the two of us, Pema had stuck with me as Silke and I drifted further apart, not wanting to bridge the ever-widening gap alone. “Let’s go find her,” Pema said. “Sure,” I answered, glancing over the rosy red bushes in that direction. Pema ran ahead.
When we caught up to Silke, she was bent over on the far side of the aspens, thrashing about in the roses. The picking hadn’t been easy. “Silke!” Pema shouted, running up to her with the hexagonal container held high. “Look how many I’ve got!”
“I see!” she answered. “You must have a good eye.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of hard to see ‘em, huh?” I said, catching up to the two of them.
“Mm,” she answered, chewing something then swallowing. “It’s like you have to approach them from the right angle… I keep thinking there’s none there, and then…” she trailed off.
“Are you eating rose hips?” I asked.
“Jah!” she replied, then laughed, as if the thickness of her unobstructed German accent helped to accentuate the obvious, which it did.
“Me too!” Pema answered, and she popped one in her mouth. Silke opened her eyes wide in acknowledgement, her cheeks rosy like in a fairytale, then spit some of the seeds on the ground.
“Beautiful, huh?” I said, indicating the aspens.
“Yeah,” she answered, this time in her regular accent, which is thick enough. A breeze came through, raising the sound of the leaves, which here and there broke off from their branches and fluttered down to the ground. We all stared for a minute in silence.
“Geeze Louise,” I said, shaking my trance. I looked at the red berries in my white plastic bucket, the bits of red and gold leaves. Everything was enough. In fact, it was much more than I had hoped for. “I think I’m going to walk down that way,” I said, looking up at Silke, “and see what I find.”
“Okay…” she answered, with a robust smile, tilting her head playfully to the side, eyes sparkling with unspoken layers of meaning.
“I’m staying here,” Pema said.
“Sir, is this your yellow bag?” the female security agent asked. Having gone through the millimeter wave machine, I was now collecting my shoes on the opposite side of the airport conveyor belt. “Yes,” I answered, nodding my head. “I’m going to have to look at it,” she continued, “can you step over here?”
Grabbing my laptop and jacket, I followed the agent over to a small plastic desk, wondering what had set off the scanner. I had remembered, thankfully, to take the swiss army knife out of the inside pocket, along with the lighter and carving knife I kept in there for school. “Do you have some food in here?” the agent asked, polite, but discrete. As she spoke, she began running her blue-gloved hands over the bag, but not quite touching it, as if she were beginning a mime routine.
“Gosh, no,” I answered, shaking my head. “I put all my food in this bag.” I raised the little shoulder bag in which I carried lunch, which had already been checked through. The agent shook her head, lips sealed tightly. It’s funny, these encounters. I had nothing to hide, and she expected as much, but neither one of us could escape that peculiar discomfort of mild suspicion.
“Maybe a snack, or...” she continued, finally unzipping the seam of the yellow backpack I had originally received from my girlfriend, now my ex-wife, who herself had gotten it, used, from a friend. I’ve had it for more than ten years now. I shrugged my shoulders, raising my right hand in a gesture of uncertainty.
“Sir, just so you know, I can’t have you touching anything in here while I perform the search.” She indicated the plexiglass walls of the little desk. “Right,” I said.
Pulling out my jacket and a few pairs of socks, which lay on top, she then proceeded to pull out a large Ziploc bag full of maroon-orange berries which had been firmly buried beneath. “Oh, right!” I said, raising my hand to my forehead, “I didn’t think of that.” Written plainly on the clear plastic bag, on a piece of masking tape, were the words, “Love Apple Green.”
“What are these?” the woman asked, already satisfied that, whatever they were, they posed no security threat. Her demeanor had shifted entirely, and the question was not that of a security agent, but a friendly bystander. We were suddenly just another couple of people chatting in the airport. The rest of the folks, going to and from the security checkpoint, quickly flooded back into my periphery. The whole room was, in fact, just a room. “They’re rose hips,” I answered. “The um… well… I just reused the bag. There were dried apples in there once… from a tree outside… anyway…” I shook my head and trailed off.
“Did you pick these?” the woman asked, now faintly curious about why someone would carry a gallon of rose hips through security. “Yes,” I answered, “they’re for a friend.”
“What…?” she asked, then trailed off, evidently trying to gather her thoughts. She didn’t seem familiar with herbs and plant medicines. “What’s he going to do with them?” she asked.
“Oh, people make teas and medicines out of them,” I said. “They have a lot of vitamin C. You know, herbal stuff. People are weird. You can make jams and jellies too.” I paused for a second as she peered over the contents. Thousands of little candy-red hips, all shriveled up like raisins, tumbled about as she turned the bag over with her powder blue, latex-free gloves. “Have you ever had one?” I asked, smiling patiently. “You should try one. Or just smell them.” Her face turned curious for a second, then she got ahold of herself. We were in an airport, after all. Placing the bag down, she grew polite. “You’re good to go,” she said, giving my yellow pack a friendly pat and sliding it, along with all its contents, towards me. She turned and walked back to the conveyor belt. There was a young woman there, standing on one leg, trying to slip on her shoe.